On March 2, all 29 employees of Evanston bakery Hewn Bread gathered for the first time at what would be their new workspace, two miles north of their aging and cram-full original. Hewn’s wholesale business had been soaring of late, and the bakery’s new 6,500-square-foot expanse of concrete, tile, and brick, slated to open April 10, seemed like a wise investment.
As proud as she was to unveil to her workforce where Hewn was headed, co-owner Ellen King was also anxious. She had friends with bakeries in Seattle, where the novel coronavirus was already wreaking havoc on the food-service industry. She and her wife, co-owner Julie Matthei, were especially vulnerable. They’d sunk everything into a $1.5 million Small Business Administration loan to buy the building that would house their new bakery, putting up their house, savings, and the business as collateral.
“I came out with my COVID worst-case scenario,” King says. “Here’s how much cash we have. Could I continue paying people if we didn’t get a dime more? The money we were spending was already a leap before the pandemic.”
Over the ensuing weeks, they watched Chicago’s dining scene grind to a halt and Hewn’s wholesale business decrease from 64 customers to four. They were forced to halt construction on the bakery and laid off nearly half of their employees.
Like so many cash flow-reliant small businesses, they adapted. They built an online store in 48 hours. They began hawking grocery items. Most astoundingly, they moved their whole bakery in less than a week without help from a moving crew — all while continuing to churn out bread and pastries to keep the business afloat.
“I can’t believe it’s been two months and we moved an entire bakery,” King says. “It’s crazy how quickly you adapt. Most of us have been way too busy to focus on what’s been lost. We’re focused on what we have to do.”
Hewn opened in 2013 in a 1,200-square-foot space on Dempster Street with just five employees and a focused lineup of handmade pastries and long-fermented breads made using locally milled flour. As the bakery’s popularity swelled, it spilled into the storefront next door, doubling capacity. But that solution proved short lived for the growing business.
“Coming into the [production area] was like entering a beehive or ant colony — everything was this juggling act of moving stuff to make room,” King says.
In summer, the production area routinely topped 100 degrees during bakes, and the single, groaning window A/C unit was not much help. By March, head baker Justin Holmes — who’s been with Hewn since it opened — says his desire to get out of the old bakery had become “visceral.”
A move was always in the cards for Hewn, whose lease contained a get-out date of May 31, 2020. But the team was reluctant to pull the trigger. Juggling demanding daily production schedules with packing, unpacking, breaking down, and reassembling equipment was enough to overwhelm a team at full strength. Add to that the specter of an unfamiliar, dangerously contagious virus, which not only slashed revenue and staff and ratcheted up anxiety levels, but also required remaining employees to maintain strict social distancing while trying to bake in and pack up the cramped bakery because they couldn’t risk hiring an outside moving crew.
The day Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide stay-at-home order, King and Matthei laid off 13 staff as their revenue all but dried up, then sat in their home debating the safety and economic viability of carrying on.
The next day, between cobbling together Hewn’s online store, they gathered the remaining staff and asked them to go on lockdown, to adhere to strict safety guidelines. Ownership followed suit. King and Matthei sent their children to stay with their exes for two weeks, every night of which King awoke in a cold sweat, convinced she had a sore throat or fever. They established contactless pickup and set strict social-distancing and cleaning guidelines, staggering production across a 24-hour schedule. They even started buying groceries for staff in an effort to ease their financial burdens and reduce the contact that they had with other people.
“It occurred to me that I’m by far the most exposed person in my extended family, my wife’s and mine,” says Holmes, who has a 19-month-old daughter at home. “But our outside contact was almost nonexistent because I didn’t have to go to the supermarket. We all did appreciate that — as one less logistical thing to worry about in addition to the cost savings.”
When the contractor got back to work in late March, King grew increasingly sure that they couldn’t afford to wait to move.
On April 19, she wrote a rousing email, setting a moving schedule for the following week to ensure everything, down to the last cooling rack, was in place before the equipment movers arrived on April 27. Internally, she knew none of this mattered if they didn’t pass their final health and fire inspections within this tiny window. (Meanwhile, the state-of-the-art walk-in cooler wouldn’t stop cooling due to a faulty part.) By day, King wrangled contractors, patched concrete and drywall at the new location, and shaped and baked at the old location. By night, she tossed and turned, gripped with fear.
She wasn’t alone. One soft-spoken pastry chef implored in a reply email that unless the staff worked two weeks straight without a day off, they couldn’t produce enough with limited staff working on new equipment while rushing to move.
“I was very skeptical,” adds front-of-house manager Kelly Lusk. “I remember in a meeting when they said that to protect us, we’re not going to use movers. And we’re all standing there with our faces covered in masks just staring at them. But realizing that we’d have three times the room, we had to bite the bullet and do it.”
For Lusk, who packed up the front of the house while overseeing to-go orders, the emotional toll was heavy. He absorbed many customers’ frustration and grief. Some were loath to stay six feet away when retrieving orders; others couldn’t get used to the idea of ordering their daily muffin two days in advance online. On top of this, they were forced to wave goodbye to their neighborhood bakery.
“Some people yelled at us that we were injuring the neighborhood by moving,” he says. “It was frustrating and at times heartbreaking. But we have our diehard customers who would follow us to Arizona if we decided to go.”
Hewn passed its final fire inspection on April 21. Two days later, the walk-in cooler part arrived and the bakery passed health inspections. The team sprang to action, filling every free moment with production or packing, loading and unloading the van. Hewn’s wholesale delivery driver became the moving manager. When bakers finished their shifts, they broke down cooling racks or loaded prep tables into the van. It wasn’t seamless; the new bread oven broke midway through its maiden bake, forcing them to schlep 600 kilos of dough back to the old location for a final bake.
“I would say safely that none of us had mixed feelings,” says King, when asked if pulling out the final loaf felt bittersweet. “Leaving in a pandemic solidified that we are done with this space. It served its purpose.”
By May 1, team Hewn was pulling burnished loaves and crackly pastries from shiny, new (functioning) ovens, and no longer jockeying for walk-in space, which had doubled, plus a new walk-in freezer — though their legs sometimes grew tired from the longer walks between the back and front of house.
King enters the airy space with a pang of sadness, seeing rows of stapled brown-paper bags in place of customers browsing display cases brimming with glossy desserts. King acknowledges that it’s wishful thinking that the bakery will brim with humanity again before there’s a vaccine; instead, it reopened June 12 with limited capacity, a face-covering requirement, and a lot of plexiglass. She and Matthei are seeking other avenues for survival that align with their locally minded ethos — be it expanding their offering of locally sourced produce and dry goods or creating a line of packaged frozen morning buns for retail.
“Rather than feel nostalgic for what’s lost, I want to embrace that this is the reality for 12 to 18 months,” King says. “I don’t look at us as transient. I want to be in a community where we live, where we can grow, where we supply people and businesses.”
Being an early recipient of the federal government’s Payment Protection Program loans — thanks largely to the debt it had incurred — allowed Hewn to cover payroll and health benefits for its staff even as revenue dried up. As of late May, the team was back up to 20 employees and counting. Just before Hewn reached week eight of federal funding, President Donald Trump signed a reform bill into law reducing payroll allocation and extending the forgiveness window for borrowers.
Hewn opened last week in its new location. But King’s stomach still drops whenever she glimpses the still-inadequate weekly orders coming in. Yet she can’t help but think that without risking it all to buy the building that would house their future, Hewn might not be here now.
“In one way, had we not had the other bakery and already taken out the loan, we might have closed the bakery because it was so exhausting to carry on,” King says. “We didn’t have a choice but to make it happen.”